New Movies — From the January 2016 issue

New Movies

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When Marnie Was There (2014), an animated feature by the Japanese director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, tells the story of a twelve-year-old girl who befriends the ghost of her grandmother, Marnie, at the same age. It is typical of recent anime films that the protagonist’s encounter with the supernatural is finally less challenging than the revelation that her foster parents receive government checks for taking care of her. Unlike American animated films, which only gesture at moral seriousness, Marnie and other films like it are centrally, sincerely concerned with the complex trials of adolescence. The casual porousness between the real and the fantastic that makes these films so persuasive and strange is also strangely beside the point.

Still from The Boy and the Beast © 2015 The Boy and the Beast Film Partners

Still from The Boy and the Beast © 2015 The Boy and the Beast Film Partners

Marnie was reportedly the last feature to come out of Studio Ghibli, the sandbox of Hayao Miyazaki, Japan’s best-known anime director, who won an Oscar for Spirited Away (2001). Among Miyazaki’s spiritual successors, perhaps the finest is a non-Ghibli director, Mamoru Hosoda. His films might be described as YA, though the term belies the confidence of Hosoda and his longtime collaborator, the screenwriter Satoko Okudera, in both the maturity of young viewers and the openness of their elders to childish things. Compare this balance — present, too, in Ghibli — with the Disney–Pixar dichotomy of kablooie for kids and over-their-heads jokes for parents: “Foot size doesn’t matter”; “I thought the earth wasn’t supposed to move until the honeymoon”; “There are no bears in San Francisco.”

In Hosoda’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006), a seventeen-year-old tomboy acquires the ability to make small backward skips in time, which she uses mostly to ace pop quizzes, drag out karaoke sessions, and forestall the dissolution of her comfortable platonic triad with two male classmates. Her leaps are finite, and in dodging the overtures of one of the boys she uses them up before she learns that he is from the future and that her spendthrift ways have trapped him in the present. In Summer Wars (2009), a gawky eleventh grader and part-time coder named Kenji gets roped into posing as the fiancé of a popular senior at her great-grandmother’s ninetieth birthday. Amid the festivities at the family’s ancestral estate, a malicious computer program called Love Machine hijacks a capacious online world called Oz and compromises the security of the real world’s global infrastructure. Hapless Kenji and his hosts must try to return Oz to order and stop Love Machine from crashing a satellite into a nuclear plant. The film presents, in Kenji, the credible growing of a pair.

Still from The Boy and the Beast © 2015 The Boy and the Beast Film Partners

Still from The Boy and the Beast © 2015 The Boy and the Beast Film Partners

Wolf Children (2012) contains Hosoda’s most striking use of a fantastical premise toward mundane ends. A self-supporting college student falls in love with a deliveryman who moonlights as a wolf. After he abruptly dies, she quits school to raise their two shape-shifting offspring; all three flee to the countryside when social services starts prying into the children’s vaccination status. As the daughter, Yuki, reaches puberty, she decides to be human full-time. Her younger brother, Ame, who has begun exploring the forest under the tutelage of an old fox, resolves to be fully lupine and succeed his sensei as guardian of the mountain. “You’re barely ten years old,” his mother responds. “A ten-year-old wolf is an adult, but that’s different. You’re not a —” She stops, for the first time awed by the change in her son.

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